Saturday, July 23, 2011

Twenty Questions, One Hundred Degrees, Two Dollars

It wasn’t really necessary for me to venture out today. Nevertheless, I did and called on my bank’s ATM, which is situated in a sliver of geography that has long been a magnet—the stomping grounds, if you will—for a cross-section of poor souls. A certain old-timer I know refers to these folks as being “not quite right in the head.” While this isn’t quite a medical diagnosis, I suppose it’s apt in the cold, cruel world we call home.

Speaking of this cold, cruel world, it was 104°F in New York City yesterday and forecast to be not much better today. As I walked the several blocks to my destination, a Rorschach test of sweat blobs appeared on my T-shirt. The continent of Australia materialized about mid-chest and a distinctive ampersand around my left nipple. Very, very interesting…but, sorry, no Jesus silhouette to report.

Passing Popeye’s chicken as I made my way out of the ATM alcove, a middle-aged man—pointing at my cane—said to me, “What happened to your leg?” Sensing oddness afoot in the wretched air, I mumbled a nothing response. But he wasn’t satisfied with that. He then asked if I was Jewish. I said no. “Irish-German?” I said no again. Why was I answering this stranger’s barrage of questions? And just who asks if anybody is ‘Irish-German’?

He then said, “But your leg’s going to get better?” In the negative swing of things, I guess, and with ever-unusual sweat shapes materializing on my clothing with each passing second, I said no once more. He was beginning to annoy me. However, this last no reply made him recoil and almost cry. “I hate hearing such things,” he said. I felt bad now and tried to reassure him I was as fit as a fiddle—just fine—but he was having none of it.

He actually looked presentable enough—not down and out—with a mild drinker’s face. Still, I knew where all of this was headed, even though he prefaced what he was about to say next with: “I’m not going to ask you for any money.” He informed me that times were tough and that he had recently lost his job. He proceeded to point into Popeye’s, telling me his wife was in there, and that the pair hadn’t eaten for a couple of days. It costs “four dollars for a piece of chicken!” he said, and let out a plaintive wail for good measure. Finally, he cut to the chase and asked, “If you can help in any way in getting us some food…and you don’t have to say yes.”

Despite not really believing his wife was in Popeye’s, and that the particulars of his tale were more than likely fabricated, there was little doubt in my mind that he was on hard times—genuine hard times. It was time for a yes. I had only a $20 bill—from the ATM—and two singles on my person. I gave him the two singles, which initiated a John Boehner-esque moment. He broke down crying and said, “Thank you...thank you...and God bless.” If I had a five dollar bill on me, which is my official maximum in such chance encounters—for these are hard times for me, too—I'd have given him that. And while I don’t ordinarily give much thought to where these little money exchanges lead to, I’d rather like to think he spent it somewhere other than in Popeye’s. In fact, I’d wager two more dollars that he did.

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